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An Urgent Communication to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
The Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Regarding the Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti

Submitted by China Change, the Martin Ennals Foundation, and Ilham Tohti Initiative

March 9, 2018

January 15, 2018, marked the 4th anniversary of the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti’s sentencing to life in prison for peacefully speaking out for the economic, cultural, political and religious rights of the 10 million Uighur people inhabiting the northwestern region known as Xinjiang. In 2017, we have made two previous attempts to appeal to the UN Special Procedures but have not heard back. Once again, China Change in Washington, D. C., the Martin Ennals Foundation in Geneva, and the Ilham Tohti Initiative in Munich would like to bring the case and conditions of Ilham Tohti to the attention of the Special Rapporteurs listed above and the working group on arbitrary detention for an intervention.  

A Summary of the Case

Ilham Tohti is the most renowned Uighur intellectual in the People’s Republic of China. For over two decades he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese over the present-day repressive religious, cultural and political conditions exercised against the Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic people living mostly in modern China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was arrested on January 15, 2014, and sentenced to life in prison in September the same year following a two-day show trial. Despite political persecution in the years leading up to his trial, he remained a voice of moderation and reconciliation.

Ilham was born in 1969 in Artush, Xinjiang, and began his studies in 1985 at the institution that is today the Central Minzu University in Beijing, long known for studies of minorities. He eventually became a faculty member at the same university and a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, and his work led to official surveillance and harassment that began as early as 1994. From time to time he was barred from teaching, and after 1999 he was unable to publish in mainstream venues in China.                 

In order to make the economic, social, and developmental issues confronting the Uighurs known to China’s wider population, Ilham established the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net in 2006 to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese on the Uighur Issue. Over the course of its existence it was shut down periodically and people writing for it were harassedIlham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation by bringing to light Uighur grievances, information the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of enforced silence.

Following massive Chinese repression in Xinjiang in 2009, Professor Tohti was taken into custody for weeks for posting information on Uighurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared.” In subsequent years he was subjected to periodic house arrests and barred from leaving the country.  

Three years ago, Ilham Tohti was convicted during a two-day show trial of the crime of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison. The court decision, which has never been made public in full, cited interviews with overseas Uighur, Chinese and English-language media outlets, his commentaries on events in, or concerning, the Uighurs and Xinjiang, his criticism of Chinese government’s ethnic policies, and his work with his students in founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which had been repeatedly suspended and, after its server was moved to overseas, endured denial of service attacks until its complete shutdown in early 2014.

In words and actions, Ilham Tohti has for years promoted peace and dialogue between the Han Chinese and Uighur communities. He opposed separatism, the use of terror to voice grievances, and any acts that fan ethnic animus, as well as government policies that undermine the Uighur language and economically marginalize the Uighur people. As a Uighur intellectual specializing inXinjiang issues and Central Asian sociology, economics, and geopolitics, he took it upon himself to critique current affairs concerning Xinjiang and its people, faithfully fulfilling the duty of a public intellectual.

Ilham Tohti is the recipient of the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in 2014, and the Martin Ennals Awardfor Human Rights Defendersin 2016. He was one of the four nominees for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2016.This summer Ilham Tohti received the 2017 Human Rights Award from the city of Weimar in Germany.

Conditions of Imprisonment

Ilham Tohti has been serving life in prison in the First Prison of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Reginon in Urumqi since December 2014 after his appeal was dismissed and sentence upheld without a court hearing on November 21, 2014. 

  • Visits:Since then, he has been allowed to receive only one family visit every three months, whereas Chinese law allows one visit per month. Each visit lasts less than one hour. In meetings, Ilham and relatives are not allowed to speak about anything except “family matters.” 

We estimate that, from the time he first received family visit in prison in June 2015 to the present, Ilham Tohti has received a total of less than 10 hours visitation over the span of more than two years. This is a calculated and cruel deprivation.

  • Solitary confinement:Until at least early 2016, Ilham Tohti’s wife said he had been held in solitary confinement. Since then there has been no update on whether this is still the case. 
  • Right to communication:He has been deprived of the right to communicate with family and friends. Letters sent by his wife have not been received, nor has she ever received letters from him.  
  • Gag order:From the first few visits in 2015 and early 2016, we were able to get brief updates on Ilham’s condition by the brothers and wife who visited him. But such updates have since dried up completely. It seems that relatives have received a gag order from the authorities, not even telling intermediaries who could then relay information to media outlets. His wife last spoke to Radio Free Asia in late summer of 2016 and was promptly visited by state agents afterwards. Ilham’s daughter, who currently studies at Indiana University, found herself cut off from family circles on Chinese social media and has been unable to gather information about her father’s condition.
  • Request for retrial (申诉shen-su) suppressed: Inlate 2015and early 2016, Ilham Tohti urged his relatives to apply for a retrial (shen-su). Under Chinese law, such an application can be filed at any stage of the jail term by any prisoner who believes he or she is wrongfully convicted and a victim of a miscarriage of justice. In the summer of 2016, friends learned privately that Ilham Tohti made another attempt to shen-subut was stopped by the authorities who threatened the family that their visitation rights would be revoked if they pressed the matter.  
  • Health concerns:The prison provides little Muslim food. After visiting him in prison in July 2016, his wife reported that he had lost a lot of weight. Given the recent death of Liu Xiaobo in prison, the health issue of China’s political prisoners has become an issue of concern. We are deeply worried about the health of Ilham Tohti, both physical and mental. 
  • Family members punished: Ilham’s niece, a 25-year-old young nurse in the city of Atush, was taken away by police in early 2016 for possessing on her cellphone a photograph of Ilham Tohti and two articles about him by Radio Free Asia, as she was stopped by police on her way to a shopping mall. She remains in custody today and has received a harsh sentence according to sources, but a search of the website of the city’s courtdoes not yield any information about her case. (In fact the website stopped posting any court decision since January 2015.) We demand to know the details of her case. 
  • The seven students of Ilham Tohti:The student volunteers who worked with Ilham Tohti on Uighurbiz.net have been sentenced to up to eight years in prison, but information about where they are being held and their condition is unavailable despite continuous efforts by multiple parties to find out more about their cases. 

All considered, we believe that the combination of reduced visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, have been carefully engineered to punish the Uighur scholar with degrading treatment and psychological torture, while at the same time keeping the attention on his plight from the outside world to a minimum. 

Our Requests 

In March 2014, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion on Ilham Tohti’s case. As the third anniversary of Ilham Tohti’s sentencing approaches, we kindly ask the Special Rapporteurs we named in the title and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to initiate interventions, as they see fit, to: 

  1. Make inquiries about the health of Ilham Tohti; 
  2. Ensure that Ilham Tohti receives monthly family visit as Chinese law stipulates; 
  3. Ensure his right to communication with friends and family is respected;  
  4. Ensure that Ilham Tohti be allowed to file a shen-suaccording to Chinese law, without he or his relatives suffering retaliation; 
  5. Make inquiries about Ilham Tohti’s 25-year-old niece in Atush, Xinjiang;
  6. Continue to press for the total freedom of the Uighur scholar and his students. 

This communication is prepared with the consent of Jewher Ilham, daughter of Ilham, to disclose the name of Ilham Tohti to the Chinese government, and to have Ilham Tohti’s name appear in a public report to the Human Rights Council. 


Enver Can
Ilham Tohti Initiative e.V.
enver.can@web.de, Mob: +49 173 891 2048
Eichenstr. 19, 85235 Odelzhausen, Germany

Yaxue Cao, 

Executive director of China Change 


Essential Readings on Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti, a 4-minute videohttp://bit.do/TohtiVideo

Statement to the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia before his arrest, July, 2013. http://bit.do/statement-uyghur

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosenby Ilham Tohti. http://bit.do/ideals-career

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang by Ilham Tohti. http://bit.do/xinjiang-analysis

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013 http://bit.do/voa-interview

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